Review: Cold Souls (2009)

Director: Sophie Barthes

**

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Directors and actors often carve stylistic niches for themselves, but it rarely happens to screenwriters. However, no-one does better Charlie Kaufman scripts than Charlie Kaufman. No-one must have told Sophie Barthes, as she plunges into the cerebral depths of Kaufmanesque neuroses to unearth Cold Souls, a bizarre little film that toys with some fascinating ideas only to mash them up into a disappointing plot that belongs in another film altogether.

In the first of many overly-clever touches, Paul Giamatti plays Paul Giamatti. Yes, the character is named Paul Giamatti (stop, my sides!). He’s starring in a production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya and the emotional strife of his character remains with him after rehearsals end. To rid himself of this misery, Paul goes to a clinic run by David Strathairn’s Dr. Flintstein. The clinic specializes in removing souls for storage until the client wants it back. This premise would be enough material to construct a rather serious film around the nature of the soul and emotion. Instead, Barthes squanders the chance to make something thoroughly thought-provoking by introducing a plot strand about Russians smuggling souls back and forth across the Atlantic. When Giamatti discovers his soul has been stolen, he takes off for Russia to get it back. This is the point when the film descends into farce-cum-buddy-pic as Giamatti teams up with Dina Korzun’s ‘soul mule’ to get his soul back. This shift in plot only distances the audience from the characters as the premise gets more and more unlikely. We go from debating the purpose of the soul to chasing after Russian traffickers without suggesting any answers for the debate of the first half, leaving intriguing ideas flapping in the wind.

Giamatti does his trademark sad-sack routine, which suits this film just fine. Dina Korzun offers a sympathetic performance, but Emily Watson is wasted as Giamatti’s wife. The whole film is shot in chilly blues and whites, distancing the audience even more from the already elusive ideas introduced in the first half of the film. Cold Souls deserves praise for some intriguing and original ideas, but will ultimately disappoint for boxing these ideas in an unoriginal plot.  A textbook case of a missed opportunity.

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